On a cold December morning, a crowd gathered in downtown Roanoke for the unveiling of a drawing of Henrietta Lacks. That drawing will be transformed into a sculpture that will stand in Henrietta Lacks Plaza. Those who witnessed the unveiling experienced firsthand the power that art can wield.
The fruition of that project was a gift to this region in 2022, one that grants something exciting to look forward to in the coming year, that we’ll be keeping you abreast of here at The Roanoke Times. Today in this space, on Christmas Day, we’ll review a few more of these heart-warming gifts, but first, a bit more on the unveiling ceremony. Lacks’ story is one that both inspires and discomforts. Born in Roanoke in 1920, the mother of five died of cervical cancer in 1951 — but a sample of her cancer cells taken without her knowledge by The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore proved able to survive and multiply outside of her body. These immortal cells were essential to decades of major scientific breakthroughs in medicine and biotechnology.
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Roanoke artist Bryce Cobbs, working from only two photos of Lacks, drew a marvelous likeness, with Lacks’ gaze tipped slightly heavenward, facing the future with head held high. Blacksburg artist Larry Bechtel — who made the compelling “Officer Down” sculpture placed before the entrance to the Roanoke Police Department — will transform Cobbs’ drawing into three dimensions. Though many tributes to Lacks exist throughout the world, it was moving to hear her grandson, Ron Lacks, praise the organizers of this Roanoke art project. “I want to thank Vice Mayor Trish White-Boyd,” and the others who worked to make the memorial possible, “because they were the first ones to ever reach out to the Lacks family before starting this project, and this means a lot to my family,” he said, adding that he looked forward to the unveiling of the finished sculpture “that will honor her forever in this beautiful city of Roanoke where my grandmother was born.”
Civil rights lawyer Ben Crump, the Lacks’ family’s firebrand of an attorney — who has also served as attorney for the families of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor — led the crowd in a chant of “Henrietta lives!” and exulted in Roanoke’s choice to make right “a historic wrong” and to raise a monument to a Black woman. “She is as relevant as any historic figure in the world today when you consider issues of genetic justice, reproductive rights and stem cell research,” Crump said. Here is a project, then, that brings the world’s gaze to Roanoke, in a positive way. Though it’s not at all the only positive thing we have to look forward to in the coming years.
More good things coming
Efforts to secure a proper 21st century future for this former railroad hub gained new momentum when the biennial state budget approved by the General Assembly and Gov. Glenn Youngkin designated $15.7 million toward transforming a Carilion-owned building in Roanoke into a shared life sciences laboratory. The city of Roanoke is contributing $1.96 million for programming costs in order to make this happen.
Meant to help startups that need access to equipment but can’t afford to build their own labs, the laboratory space will be under development through 2023 and open for businesses in 2024. When activated it will further enhance the ever-expanding “innovation corridor,” which stretches into downtown Roanoke from Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, along the way passing and including the Radford University Carilion campus and the RAMP Regional Accelerator for incubating new technology companies.
Public transportation will factor enormously in how our economy fares in future decades, and 2022 heralded a slew of exciting news on that front. The $17 million Valley Metro bus station in downtown Roanoke is close enough to completion that it opened for operations in mid-November. From wage disputes that Valley Metro has dragged its wheels in resolving to less than ideal limits on routes, frequency and hours, there’s plenty of room for improvement — and alas, Roanoke riders won’t get to enjoy fare-free rides, as became the case with the better-funded Blacksburg Transit earlier this month. Yet Valley Metro’s affordable rides are vital to the city’s financial ecosystem and a major option for reduction of fossil fuel consumption.
July saw a second Amtrak train start visiting the Roanoke platform in the afternoon, offering rides to Washington, D.C., and back. Though it will take longer to be realized, plans to bring Amtrak passenger rail service to the New River Valley were formally set in motion during the final days of Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration in January, with officials saying a new station in Christiansburg could be operational in 2026. Northam’s successor, Glenn Youngkin, has enthusiastically endorsed a passenger rail extension to Bristol.
Speaking of the power of art, and of connections to the New River Valley, the Taubman Museum of Art managed to maintain the level of spectacle set by “Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design,” featuring Oscar-winning costume designs from “Black Panther,” which closed in April. “Titian to Monet: European Paintings from Joslyn Art Museum,” which combines centuries of paintings from Old Masters with an animated 360 degree “immersive experience” created in partnership with Virginia Tech, will be around for two more weeks — if you’ve not opened this particular gift yet, you should go while it’s still around. And last, but absolutely not least: May your holiday season be blessed with generosity received and generosity given.